Richland school candidates look to rebuild trust after controversies

Rebuilding trust.

That was common theme among Richland School Board candidates — incumbents and challengers, alike.

The district’s spring and summer were marred by budget concerns, possible cuts to special education staff and a controversial decision to buy out the contract of its pending superintendent and to start over looking for a new leader.

At one point more than 500 people packed a school gymnasium for a three-hour meeting to hear concerns.

The concerns also brought challengers for two incumbent board members hoping to be re-elected.

Rama Devagupta, a Kennewick teacher, is running against Jill Oldson.

And Matthew Bishop, who previously ran for a spot on the board, is taking on longtime board member Rick Donahoe.

And in the third race, one-time congressional candidate Jay Clough is facing off with Kari Williams to fill Brett Amidan’s open position after he moved out of state.

Clough Williams key frame.jpg
Jay Clough and Kari Williams TriCities

Clough vs. Williams

Jay Clough, a two-time candidate for public office, is facing off with Kari Williams, who is a longtime school district volunteer.

It’s the only race where the candidates have brought in more than $5,000 each in campaign contributions.

Williams has raised the most with more than $9,000 primarily collected from a series of independent donors including several doctors.

Clough reported raising nearly $8,400, with half of it coming from the Washington Education Association and the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598 political action committee.

While the school position is nonpartisan, Williams is one of two school candidates endorsed by the Benton County Republican Party.

She said she sought the endorsement because it shows people where she stands on some issues, but she stressed she has no political agenda.

Williams trained as a teacher in Utah and earned her master’s in education. The mother of five wants to make sure someone with a history in the classroom is sitting on the board.

“I think all school districts should have a teacher with a degree in education on their school board,” she said.

She has long been involved as a district volunteer, including co-chairing the board’s 2017 bond committee, which was successful.

And while Clough has previously campaigned for a state office as a Democrat, he said he has not sought endorsements from partisan groups for this race.

However, he’s been endorsed by state and local teachers unions and some county officials.

The health physics technician with Washington River Protection Solution said he has the skills to necessary to rebuild trust inside and outside the district.

Clough volunteered at his children’s school for four years, and has experience as a teacher in both public and private schools.

“I have two children in the Richland School District, and I want them to have the same opportunity that I had when I was growing up,” he said.

Olson and Devagupta.jpg
Rama Devagupta and Jill Oldson Tri-City Herald file

Devagupta vs. Oldson

Jill Oldson, who lost a previous election to a coin flip, was appointed to the board to replace Gordon Comfort last year. She is running for her first full term.

Oldson became involved with the district when her daughter started attending classes.

“I became fascinated with how the system works and where it’s broken and how we leave some kids behind,” she said. “With the last year that I served on the board, I’m just going to say it was an interesting year. It was a little tumultuous. It was a little crazy.”

In that time, she said she had to sit back and listen and learn. Her biggest takeaway was the importance of being educated about the issues facing education. It’s important to move forward and learn from mistakes so they don’t happen again, she said.

Challenger Rama Devagupta teaches science at Southridge High School, and was part of a rush of parents who became interested in the school board during the problems in the past year.

She has worked on strategic planning committees, the science adoption committee and on the instructional materials committee.

Devagupta, whose two children graduated from the district, said she wants to make sure every child has the same chance to succeed that her children did.

“My dream is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to excel and pursue their dreams,” she said. “However, these are difficult times in our district. Both the state’s impact on our current budget situation, and district decisions taken during the past couple of years have created distrust in our community.”

The district needs to make sure the hiring administrators is done well. She also wants to work to restore trust and respect between all involved and the community.

Bishop Donahoe candidates.jpg
Matthew Bishop and Rick Donahoe TriCities

Bishop vs. Donahoe

Rick Donahoe, a former chief executive officer for the Children’s Reading Foundation, is looking to win a third full term on the board. He’s served for more than decade, first getting appointed in 2009 to finish out an expiring term.

While he was a teacher in Virginia, he admits it wasn’t for him, so he went back to school and became a chemical engineer and was a project manager for 33 years for Bechtel. After retiring he joined the reading foundation.

He wants to make sure the school board is collaborating with teachers, parents and the community at-large. He is looking forward to working on the search for a new superintendent and on finding ways to help special education students.

“I’m passionate about public education, and I have the experience and skills that will benefit our entire school community,” he said.

Matthew Bishop is running for the board for a second time, after previously losing to incumbent Heather Cleary.

The former GOP precinct committee officer initially sought the position after hearing from many parents who felt the district wasn’t responding to their needs. He had three children in Richland schools and one was a special needs student.

On his Facebook page he blames two school board members, the superintendent and the special education director for creating the distrust but declined to talk with the Herald about his concerns.

“It’s time for the parents and voters in the Richland School District to step up and demand they up the schedule and get to work sooner than later on fixing the issues that are facing the special education department,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.